The Church as a Creative Minority
One of the attractions of the early church in the Roman Empire was that it offered an alternative culture to its members. As early as Acts 2, the Christian community was living by a different set of rules and principles than the rest of society. This was the intentional practice of the church for the first four centuries of its existence.
According to Eusebius in his book, Church History, a bishop named Cornelius in Rome counted among its 46 presbyters and 105 various other leaders, 1,500 widows. Think of that! There was a specific count of widows right alongside the number of pastors, elders, deacons, etc.
Why is this important?
Because we know that the church not only took care of widows, something unusual in the Roman world, but we also know that they were given the task of caring for the unwanted children who were cast off and left to die in the streets. This was the genesis of what would later become the first orphanages in the world. Just as Jesus became the champion of common people in Israel, the early church became the same for the marginalized and struggling masses of the empire. This was an attractive alternative to the life that was available to most people at that time.
Author and Sociologist Rodney Stark contends that the church’s willingness to care for marginalized people was one of the major reasons why it grew exponentially in the ancient world. In his book The Rise of Christianity, he points to more than one epidemic that swept through the empire, killing up to one third of the population at a time. This was especially true in the urban centers where Christian leaders cared for the sick while their pagan counterparts fled for safety. During these times, Stark notes, the number of people converting to Christianity grew substantially. People were able to see the contrast of Christianity with paganism and, as a result, accepted the offer to become Christians and join the church.
The key to creating this type of an alternative culture, according to author and educator Jon Tyson, is to take on the mindset of what he calls a Creative Minority. In his book by the same title, he says, “A Creative Minority seeks to function in a dominant culture for the purpose of being a redeeming factor within it.” One can easily see how the teachings of Christ and the actions of the early church fulfilled this definition of the creative minority.
The phrase Creative Minority is not original to Tyson, however. English historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) used this phrase in describing what he believes has saved civilization repeatedly from collapsing on itself because of internal decline. In an article for the Action Institute, Samuel Gregg describes Toynbee’s definition of the people who comprise a Creative Minority as “those who proactively respond to a civilization’s crisis and whose response allows that civilization to grow.” This aligns with Stark’s conclusions about how the early church’s care of people in the Roman Empire during the many epidemics not only made the church a creative minority but also helped preserved civilization as a whole. This has been the consistent and repeated action of the church throughout history.
Another example of how the church becoming a creative minority in the Roman Empire can be seen in AD 410 when the Visigoths sacked Rome. Their Christian leader Alaric ordered the destruction of Rome’s governmental infrastructure but left Christian institutions intact. In the years that followed, it was the organization of the church that provided some of the only law and order the people of Rome enjoyed. The church in Rome was a creative minority fulfilling Toynbee’s definition of “those who proactively respond to a civilization’s crisis and whose response allows that civilization to grow.”
If it is true that the church was intended by God to be a creative minority in an alternative culture, then perhaps these five characteristics of a creative minority will be helpful in understanding how the church can be salt and light in a contemporary world.
1. A Creative Minority Must Be a Covenant Community
The Clapham Sect (sometimes called the Clapham Saints) was a group of committed reformers in 19th Century England. They are described by historian Stephen Michael Tomkins as "a network of friends and families in England, with William Wilberforce as its center of gravity, who were powerfully bound together by their shared moral and spiritual values, by their religious mission and social activism, by their love for each other, and by marriage.” While they successfully pushed for the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, it was their commitment to each other that created the underpinnings for their success.
The Moravians were another creative minority who also believed in creating a covenant community. In his history of church leaders titled God’s Generals, Roberts Liardon describes what Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf called the Brotherly Union and Compact.
“Ludwig preached passionately on the goal of Christian unity – that they all be one in Christ. He reminded the Moravians of their commitment to the simple faith the earlier United Brethren. In the end, Zinzendorf, the lord of the state, made clear that every member of Herrnhut must pursue brotherly love in Christ in order to remain on his land. He asked them to sign a Brotherly Union and Compact to live together in Christian peace. Ludwig signed the pact first, followed by Christian David and then the other Herrnhut settlers.”
To Zinzendorf and the inhabitants of Herrnhut, signing their name to this document was necessary in fulfilling their vision of impacting the world with their brand of Protestantism. It’s no wonder that within 30 years they had sent hundreds of missionaries to various parts of the world including the Caribbean, North and South America, the Arctic, Africa, and the Far East. Their impact in these areas is still felt today.
2. A Creative Minority Must Create and Own their Narrative
“Narrative is our culture’s currency,” says Bobette Buster, a consultant and professor of Practical Digital Storytelling at Northeastern University, “he who tells the best story wins.” As one of the leading experts in creating a narrative, she is a popular consultant for political figures and anyone needing to tell their story. While a creative minority may not be rich with material assets, it can be wealthy in the narrative, creating a currency that has immense value in the greater culture.
It is important that creative minorities owns their narratives and repeats them often. That story is one of the most important ingredients in establishing their identity and purpose. Every member must know and repeat it with common accuracy. As the Messiah of storytelling, Jesus often illustrated truth through parables and narratives for the church that is still being repeated worldwide today. At the core of Christian belief lies a narrative upon which the entire structure is built. It’s called the gospel.
3. A Creative Minority Must Innovate New Practices
Innovation brings a beauty and attractiveness for a creative minority as they establish a new normal in their ranks. This would include a new worldview and ideology that creates a new ethical standard. These ethics should put people at the center of their purpose and achieve the desired goal of making of people’s lives better. This is the alternative culture that the creative minority must work to create.
Author Rod Dreher has written and lectured on what he called the Benedict Option. Named after the Sixth Century monk who left the decadence of Rome to establish an alternative culture that became the basis for the monasteries of Europe, Dreher believes it’s time for a reformation of this kind of mindset. In an interview with the American Conservative, Dreher explains,
“The Benedict Option refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.”
In other words, he sees the Benedict Option as Christians creating an alternative culture for the purpose of preserving historical Christianity and serving the needs of society as a creative minority.
This would have been nothing new for the Jewish members of the First Century Church. They had been creating hubs of Jewish culture throughout the world since their original dispersion in 586 BC when the Babylonians invaded Israel. Commonly referred to by historians as the Jews of the Diaspora, these Jews created Jewish communities throughout the world, spurned on by the words of the Prophet Jeremiah when they originally left Israel,
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who were carried away captive, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace (Jeremiah 29:4-7).”
The early church had an easy example to follow.
4. A Creative Minority Must Live by a Common Practical Ethic
The letters of the New Testament (Epistles) present the world with a new and living ethical standard by which Christians in the church should conduct themselves. Many of Paul’s exhortations were practical teachings that allowed the church to remain unique and attractive to the masses. Becoming a part of the Christian community offered a better way of living than most people experienced in the Roman world.
When Paul advocated for decency, equality and social justice within the church, he was advocating a new ethical standard that would pave the way for Western Civilization, as we know it. Nowhere else in Roman society could a slave sit beside a master and share a meal or enjoy equality. Nowhere else could former prostitutes and wives of Roman dignitaries socialize together without feelings of superiority and inferiority. Only in the church could various social classes and ethnicities intermingle. Like Paul said in Galatians 3:28 (and similarly in Colossians 3:11), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
5. A Creative Minority Must Offer Real Solutions to Real Problems
If the church does not change with the times, it finds itself answering questions that no one is asking or providing solutions to problems that no longer exist. In the church, we often find ourselves wrangling over mid-Twentieth Century issues in a post-Christian, Twenty-first Century world that has long moved on. This is one reason why we get labeled as irrelevant, impractical and out-of-touch.
I think it’s time for a mindset change in the leadership of the church. People like me! We have been so focused on creating a production on Sunday morning that attracts people to our worship centers, that we have inadvertently created another form of American entertainment that we flippantly call, “church.” In reality, it has very little resemblance of the ecclesia of the New Testament and has equally as little impact on our cities. Statistics bear out that in most cases in the United States, all that is happening in many church growth scenarios is that people are leaving smaller churches for the production value of larger ones. In these cases, the folks that have been attracted to such churches come with a consumer mindset and will quickly leave and move to another venue when they get bored. That’s why we are producing fans but not disciples.
While production value and attractional methods of church growth are not bad in themselves (so keep up the good work!), a mindset change must come on the back end of such activities. An intentional strategy for creating an alternative culture must exist if we hope to increase our influence in our cities. Instead of being satisfied with the number of warm bodies in the seats, we should measure our success by a more significant and long-term standard. To use Tyson’s definition again, the church must “function in a dominant culture for the purpose of being a redeeming factor within it.”
In this reality, the local church should be much more than a weekly event on the calendars of its members. Pastors like me should not be satisfied by a production that attracts and entertains people for a couple hours on Sunday. The church should be an island of Kingdom Culture where among the lives of its members, heaven touches earth. It is the place where people get a foretaste of the environment and practices of Heaven. And for those pressing into it, the Kingdom of God releases the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. This is not something they attend once a week but a living reality that inundates every part of their lives.
“The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.” Luke 16:16
“Nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:21
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-29
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10
So the Kingdom of God could be defined here as an alternative culture where a creative minority emerges. The human experiences God intended from the beginning of man’s creation begins to be realized in a world filled with hate and confusion.
This is the work of the church.
This is the value of the church.
This is the beauty of the church.
“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.” John 17:15-19
Here are some important questions for us to answer in regards to the issues of this writing:
Is my church a covenant community or a lose affiliation of consumers gathered around a Sunday morning program?
How do I experience church-life between Sunday services?
Do I relate, feel more connected and show more passion for my church family or to my outside activities, like clubs and sports teams?
What makes me different than my unbelieving friends and neighbors?
Do I know my church’s story?
What makes my church unique from every other church in my community?
Can I articulate specifically my church’s story?
Does being a member of my church change the way I live?
Does my church challenge me to live a better life or make me feel better about the life I’m already am living?
Do I identify as a Christian who happens to live in America or am I an American Christian who goes to church?
Do I have more in common with an unbelieving American citizen or a Christian undocumented immigrant?
Do I post more passionately about politics on social media or about the needs of the people who live in my community?
What is my church doing to address the real needs of my community?